Not Quite Andersonville

By Jeff Hendershott

My favorite Civil War topic to read about?  Civil War prisons and Andersonville.  My favorite Civil War movie of all-time?  "Andersonville."  The ONE Civil War site I MUST see even if I see no others?  You got it - Andersonville.

Explaining why I fell in love studying Civil War prisons is like trying to explain the compulsion to don the wool and grab a musket and fall in with a reenacting unit.  For me, I can't explain it (or why I did it while active).  It just "is," you know?

I thought maybe it had to do with my 10 years of teaching in a juvenile offender detention facility a number of years ago.  Maybe, maybe not.  All I know is that the topic fascinates me and I prefer it over battles and leaders of the war.  We in North Central Ohio have little Johnson's Island up in Lake Erie just north of Sandusky.  Been there a couple of times.  Although there isn't much to see aside from a monument of a Confederate soldier and about 200 gravestones of men who perished there (Johnson's Island was a Confederate officer's prison), it's a cool way to spend a couple hours.  It had to be a brutal place to be confined in the winter (those of you who live in Northern Ohio know what I'm talking about here)!

In fact, our local annual Civil War Relic and Collector's show in Mansfield, Ohio (the largest of its kind in America) donates a portion of proceeds to Johnson's Island preservation.

Anyway, I feel compelled to tell you the irony of my passion for studying Civil War prisons and my new profession.

I now work in a prison!

As the educational system in America claims "No Child Left Behind" while that very system crumbles all around us, hundreds, no, thousands of teachers are ending up like me - unemployed!  Last year, I was notified that for the second time in my teaching career, I was being "downsized" because the school levys were not passing while the federal and state governments only pay this crisis "lip service."  44 years old and collecting unemployment with a wife and four kids and no school district looking for a "history nut" like me because hell, they too are laying off teachers by the scores.  Time to get creative or work two minimum wage jobs.  I chose the former.

And that's how I ended up working in an adult prison, teaching felony offenders.  Hey, it's a state job, it pays well and I can help those who need their high school diploma.  No, it's not quite my dream job, but it's good honest work (for those of you thinking about going into teaching, think long and hard.  It's an honorable profession, but as universities continue to graduate newly trained teachers, take a GOOD LOOK at what's out there for you first.  That advice is free, mind you, so that's what it's worth).

OK, security issues to consider here.  All I can say is that it is a big place.  More striking, I found that there are MANY similarities in terms of how it operates and my beloved Andersonville.

No, no, no - there's no Sweetwater Creek serving as drinking water and toilet.  None of the confined are digging wells (although I do know at some prisons in America, some try and tunnel out).  No dugout shanties for shelter, no rampant disease, no Captain Wirz or kids and old men manning the look-outs.  And certainly, Andersonville didn't have a school, a modern hospital, social services, rehabilitation programs, for example.

However, there is a paramilitary feel to the operation.  Officers can rise to the rank of Major until you get to administrative levels.  There's a Chaplin.  There's no "dead line," but most if not all prisons have double walls (laced with that lovely razor-wire) and perimeter guards on patrol 24/7.  So the general layout has striking - yet certainly modern and more humane - features.  Some offenders get to work outside the walls and, it should come as no surprise, some like to make a "run for it" just like at Andersonville.  In some regards, prisons will always have some similarities regardless of the era.

So although it's not quite Andersonville, thankfully, or in many ways not even close, a long look got me to looking at some of the features that both have in common.  And if you believe in fate, well, that's kind of why I related this story to you.

That, and kicking myself for not being obsessed with having an interest in being the next Bill Gates as opposed to being obsessed with Civil War prisons!